Entry 11: Colorizing the Civil War

Blood and Glory. Directed by Kevin Burns. Written by Kevin Burns, Eric Murphy, Rhys Thomas, and Max Thompson.

Release Date: April 7 & 14, 2015.

I had mixed feelings about this documentary before I’d seen a minute of it. My expectations for a History [Channel] show are pretty low these days, but several names I respect were involved (among them, George Rable, Peter Carmichael, Allen Guelzo, James Oakes, Mark M. Smith). Those names, however, were counter-balanced by others who’s presence was less justifiable (Ben Stein, Richard Dreyfuss, Bill O’Reilly). And then there are those colorized photos that serve as its foundation. I wasn’t a fan from the moment they first appeared. Like their colorized classic film counterparts, the colors are too pastel and there’s something unnatural about them. Then again, any documentary that makes heavy use of Civil War photography can’t be all bad. Now that I’ve seen it, I remain divided. There were things about Blood and Glory I liked and things that really bothered me. I didn’t learn anything new, but it avoided getting too bogged down in the “Football Analyst School” or the more regrettable habits of the History [Channel], and thus emerged as a fairly solid (if somewhat ephemeral) Civil War documentary.

Perhaps part of the reason my thoughts on Blood and Glory are scattered is because the documentary lacks a central thread other than “Look! Colorized Civil War photos!” Parts of it are very well done, others presented in an interesting enough way that they at least seem fresh, but long stretches left me disappointed if not exasperated. By the end of the first half, I found myself much more in the latter camp. It starts promisingly, with an overview of the sectional crisis that centers on slavery and highlights events not usually covered in these popular documentaries, like the Fugitive Slave Act. But it soon devolves into a typical History [Channel] program, with a bizarrely unwavering focus on technology. The entire second quarter plays like a list of technological advances without much historical context other than to suggest the North won, at least in part, because its war machine was more modern. Things get completely out of hand when the documentary presents emancipation as simply another advance to add to the North’s “arsenal” by weakening the South and providing a new source of Union soldiers.Prisoners of war: This colorized image and its original black and white stenograph taken by Mathew Brady in 1863 on top of Seminary Ridge in Gettysburg from the main eastern theater of the war show three Confederate prisoners

I greeted the second half with lower expectations and found that, despite a couple of missteps, it remained fairly solid. After all the tech stuff, I felt like Blood and Glory was too sanitized, but the second half spends a surprisingly big chunk of its run-time examining the physical and mental costs of war to its soldiers. There are hints of Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering as well as the growing scholarship on veterans. I was especially pleased to see so much of the documentary’s final quarter devoted to the war’s aftermath and Reconstruction–even including the often-taboo assertion that the period represented a continuation of the war by other means. The influence of the National Parks Service’s “From Civil War to Civil Rights” campaign is clearly evident near the end, when the narrative explicitly describes the Civil Rights Movement as the “Second Reconstruction” and the fulfillment of the promise made by northern victory.Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman in color...  Sherman's March to the Sea...   Original Photo in black and whiteWilliams Tecumseh Sherman, American Civil Wars, Colors American, Colors Photos, Civil Wars General, Major General, General Williams, African American History, The Civil Wars

So, Blood and Glory is a bit of a mixed bag, but I suppose that makes it a good representation of the sesquicentennial’s successes and failure. New interpretations were included, if not followed through to their logical interpretative endpoints. Its narrative flow is very disjointed but I wonder if this is because the photographs largely dictated what topics could be covered and how much time could be spent on each. Even still, it struck me as a loose collection of stories without a central thread or thesis. Thankfully, it largely pulls everything together in the end and defines the war as a struggle for Union and equality while avoiding the blatant reconciliationism and “football analyst school” trappings of the centennial. Indeed, if you’d asked me how the History [Channel] would end its major contribution to the sesquicentennial, I never would have guessed it would be with a short biography of Robert Smalls.

Additional Dispatches

  • As I mentioned earlier, the collection of talking heads is very eclectic. The academics all did well, although some were underused. Of the celebrities, Stein fares the worst, especially at the end when he shows his dated grasp of Civil War scholarship by downplaying the role of slavery in Confederate soldier motivation. Several military figures also participated, most notable David Patraeus and Colin Powell. Both did fine but Powell came off especially well, making several keen observations about the war and African American history.
  • Full disclosure: George Rable was my dissertation adviser, so it was a real treat to see him on TV. Wish they’d used him more because his commentary was consistently solid.
  • Again, I really can’t get behind those colorized pictures. Maybe I just have blinders on, but the vast majority of them just don’t look realistic to me.
  • Man, the soundtrack for this thing is terrible. The music behind the description of the Gettysburg Address is especially bad and sounds like the kind of thing that played behind educational films in the 1980s. Indeed, the whole production has a vague cheesiness that kept me from fully engaging.
  • Does it mention slavery? Yes, and in refreshing ways. The issue drops out for long stretches, but the first episode makes no attempt to argue anything but slavery caused the war and the final episode highlights black freedom and equality as the war’s primary legacy and unfinished work.

Next Entry: Ancient Aliens: Aliens and the Civil War

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